Dear Patrick: I’m a gay man in my early 20s who isn’t publicly out and has never dated or had sex. I don’t know where to start learning about sex, relationships, etc. But I guess I’ll start with a question about identity and labels. Am I allowed to label myself based on what I think I like, even though I haven’t actually done anything?
I would definitely be interested in topping and bottoming, which I think is my preference when it comes to sex. I’m also developing an interest in BDSM. I prefer the idea of submitting and have an idea of what aspects of kink I’m interested in. But I think I would be willing and capable of dominating somebody if they wanted me to. Can I call myself a switch? I don’t know if I can give myself these labels. Should I actually explore and experiment before saying that I’m this or that?
Oh, it’s not that bad. At this point in time, you know what you would like to try. That’s where all of us begin. You feel attracted to other men. You are curious about what it would be like to touch them and have them touch you. That’s a good first step. You have clarified a few additional details—finding out if being a bottom during vanilla sex is satisfying, and investigating how you respond to role-playing with dominance and submission.
The problems with labeling yourself are primarily social. Other people often expect these labels to be black-and-white and permanent. But for a sexual beginner, there are a lot of question marks. You can only get answers to certain questions by allowing your body to follow your curiosity. What if you try something and discover that it is better kept in the realm of fantasy? Would it be socially awkward for you to change your on-line profile or tell friends that you need to update your self-label? My advice would be to stick with the simple truth for now. “I am attracted to other men. I want to see what that is like.” Or, even better—“I am attracted to you, and I want to see what it would be like to have sex/make love with you.”
Some gay men don’t want to be initiators. The thought of being with a guy who has never had a sexual experience with another man can create too much performance anxiety. Other men would love to be the one who brought you out. Gay and bisexual men find sex in a wide range of venues—parks, sex clubs, bedrooms. If you are looking to get your cock sucked in the bushes, a lot of conversation might be a bad idea. Everybody wants to be as quiet as possible to avoid drawing attention to their illicit activity. The “no talking” rule sometimes carries over to a club or bathhouse. Local mores vary from one city to another and even one backroom bar to another. So in a public or quasi-public situation, explaining the details of your history will not help you to fit in.
If you are having sex with a friend or some other man you can talk to, rather than a stranger, there are good reasons to divulge your “beginner” status. Your partner’s expectations of you and the way he will guide the experience may be affected by the fact that you are a novice.
If I am with somebody who has already done the things we plan to do, my intention is to get us both off as intensely as possible. I focus on the things we have in common, what we both like. But if I am with a beginner, I want to introduce them to a wide variety of experiences. We will probably do a little of as many things as possible. If we find one activity that rocks your world, then we can narrow the focus down to that successful technique. I solicit more verbal feedback from a novice. Even if we are having vanilla sex, I might give the person a safe word so they can blurt out “onion” or “red light” if they are unhappy, turned-off, or freaking out. I want that backup so nobody falls off the trapeze.
If you can, I would suggest that you sort out your response to the gender of your partner before you pursue BDSM. However, we don’t always have control over what opportunities present themselves. Doing BDSM before you try gay sex without all the bells and whistles won’t screw you up. But BDSM has an interesting effect on some people. It tends to facilitate jumping over the gender boundary. If you really like to get tied up and spanked and you are a gay man, you will look for a master. But if you happen to encounter a woman who knows how to do excellent bondage, and she is a mean and sexy spanker, you might enjoy a scene with her even though a woman is not your ideal choice for a sex partner. This can be confusing for a person who is sorting out their identity.
When you are approaching any sexual experience, it is okay to avoid questions about who you are and stick to the issue of what you want to do. If your partner is horny, he will stop interrogating you about your identity and move on to the more thrilling business of getting everybody’s pants off. You may run into the occasional man who insists on only having sex with people who belong to certain categories that he finds politically acceptable or erotically exciting. If you have the misfortune to be with somebody who starts to bully you (“I can’t imagine having sex with a bisexual, you can’t trust somebody who can’t make up his mind”), it might be a good idea to walk away unfulfilled. Don’t let somebody else blackmail you into pretending that you have more information about yourself than you actually have. This is usually a sign that the person is a control freak and has some odd ideas about what it means to have the sexual identities that he (or she) has placed on a personal “no fly” list.
Enjoy this process. Take it slow. Protect your health. Stick to people who communicate clearly and show respect for you and concern for your well-being. Somebody can be slapping your face and still have good intentions toward you. Someone else might want nothing but vanilla sex, but their motives are so creepy that you wind up feeling slimed. If you make a mistake, learn from it, but don’t allow yourself to linger in shame or regret. It is absolutely normal to take a couple of years to be able to have sex turn out well 80% of the time. The learning curve is unavoidable. You have to put up with the boring or crappy experiences so you can carve out an area of experience and skill where you feel at home and get what you need. One of the nice things about being new to sex is the fact that even a mediocre encounter can be kinda thrilling—“Look what I did,” you think, smiling into your morning cup of coffee.